Friday, October 4, 2013

Tuppence's Tale, or Why You Should Name Your Animals with Care

We recently were given the chance to add two more Ancona ducks to our flock and, me being me, I simply couldn't resist. One of the new ladies is this gorgeously marked blue duck named Tuppence. My #1 daughter is currently reading through all of Agatha Christie's novels and thought it would be fun to name a duck after the character of Tuppence Beresford.

We should have known better.

Invariably, our animals have all exhibited the character traits of the people they are named after. Doofenshmirtz the Buff Orpington rooster? He's evil, all right.  Aragorn the Cream Legbar cockerel is definitely in charge while Faramir plays second fiddle.  Lita Ford the Easter Egger was unfortunately a one hit wonder much like her namesake; she is our one and only loss to a predator, cut off in her prime. Of course, there is the conspicuous exception of our Mini Lop rabbit, Snuggles - she's neurotic rather than cuddly - but for the most part, the rule has held true.

I always shut my birds up for the evening right at dusk, but last night I didn't go outside until it was already pitch black. Most of the ducks in my main duck pen had already put themselves to bed. I shone a flashlight around and under the house to make sure there weren't any stragglers and locked them in for the night.

Then I went to the pen where the two new ducks are currently living. Although I have no reason to suspect that they have any diseases, it is still good practice to keep them separate from the rest of the flock for a few weeks. I shone my light around the pen and quickly found Bluebell. Tuppence was no where to be seen.

I felt absolutely sick to my stomach. Had a predator somehow grabbed Tuppence and pulled her through the fence? Did a hawk make its way through the fishing line strung like netting over the pen? The Man of the House and I searched all around the pen's perimeter, looking for any gaps in the fencing. We even lifted the duck house off the ground in case she had somehow wedged herself underneath it.


The Man of the House and I looked at each other with perplexed expressions. (So I assume. It was too dark to see if his confusion matched mine.) Then he asked me if I had counted the ducks in the main duck house when I locked them in.

Well, no, I hadn't. We rushed over to the main pen and shone the flashlight through one of the ventilation windows. The ducks freaked out at the unexpected beam of light, but we were able to count nine ducks.

There were supposed to be eight ducks in that pen! And there was Tuppence smack dab in the middle of the frantic huddle. We had no earthly idea how Tuppence got into the pen, but we were just so thankful that she hadn't become a coyote's dinner that we didn't over think it. We put her back into the proper pen with Bluebell, said good-night, and locked them in.

The ingenious little Tuppence tried to play the same trick the next morning, but this time I was there to see it. She squashed her skinny little body through the tiny gap between the gate and the rest of the fence and decided to go check out the chickens' premises. Thankfully this happened while I was doing my morning bird chores so I was able to intercept her before Wile E. Coyote did.

We moved Tuppence and Bluebell into the pen we raise our youngest ducks in. The extra reinforcement seemed to do the trick... or so I thought. The very next morning I witnessed Tuppence fly six feet into the air, which is easily enough to clear the gate. Anconas are not supposed to fly like that and I've never had one get up more than three feet off the ground.

We've never had a duck do shenanigans like these before. But then again, we've never had a duck named after a very impulsive spy from a detective novel, either!

Take note, animal lovers: name your friends with care.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

How Dorcas Got Named and Became a Part of Our Flock

Although I am the main person in charge of our poultry projects, our whole family is definitely involved. I try to be the more business-like, scientific person when it comes to choosing which birds to keep and breed from and which others to sell. Sometimes it is a lost cause because a family member has become sentimentally attached to a particular bird. Such is the case with the little Ancona duck we call Dorcas.

Dorcas at hatch

Dorcas is the product of mating between Hyacinth, an over-marked blue drake, with a bevy of blue and black females. I wanted to see if I could get some blue, lilac, or lavender ducklings using Hyacinth's genetics, but without his over-abundance of color.

When Dorcas (then called "little purple duckling") was born, it was obvious that she had too much color; the goal is to have no more than 75% of a bird either colored or white. I was intrigued by the color she had, however. I hadn't hatched any lavender ducklings before, and I thought the little purple duckling matched the description, but I really didn't think I should keep such a strongly marked duck.

All of these ducklings had the same daddy! Hyacinth has since been re-homed.
"Little Purple Duck" is in the middle. 

In general, we sell our ducklings straight-run. For those of you new to the poultry world, that means we do not sex the birds ahead of time, so buyers will on average receive 50% male, 50% female ducks. We do, however, vent sex the ducklings we keep for ourselves. We are over 95% accurate with our vent sexing, which I think is pretty darn good.

Vent Sexing is usually not hard as long as you have good light and a gentle touch. (Learn more about how to vent sex waterfowl here.) It does not harm the duckling as long as you are careful.

That is the way it is supposed to go. This is what happened when The Man of the House (TMotH) and I decided to vent sex "Little Purple Duckling":

As per our usual routine, I held the duckling and pulled the tail back while TMotH gently pulled back the tissue surrounding her vent and examined the vent under strong light.. No penis popped out, so we knew that Little Purple Duck was a girl. At that moment, my #2 daughter walked in and shrieked, "Why are you beheading that duck?!"

That was confusing because #2 daughter had seen us vent sex ducklings numerous times and, of course, we weren't beheading the duck.

Then I noticed that Little Purple Duck was dangling lifelessly in my hands. I gave her to TMotH. He proceeded to give mouth to beak CPR and pump up and down on her little chest. He later told me that he gently blew into one of her nostrils so that the strong force of his breath wouldn't damage her tiny lungs. I was amazed that he could think about the difference between duck and human anatomy at such a time. I guess that's why he's an MD! I grabbed another duckling from the nearby brooder in the hopes that his peeping would help stimulate the Little Purple Duck.

A few tense moments passed and then she started breathing again and made a full recovery.

We still don't know exactly why the duckling passed out while being vent sexed. It has never happened before or since. Needless to say, TMotH feels a strong bond with this particular duck and absolutely refused to allow me to sell her.

We named her Dorcas after this story from Acts 9:36-42:

36 Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas.[a] She was full of good works and acts of charity. 37 In those days she became ill and died, and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him, urging him,“Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter rose and went with them. And when he arrived, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics[b] and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them. 40 But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. 41 And he gave her his hand and raised her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. 42 And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. (ESV)

Dorcas and her brood mates at about 2 weeks of age

Dorcas at 1.5 months of age

Dorcas is still over-marked like her daddy. Unlike her daddy, however, she has a permanent place in our flock. Saving an animal from death tends to bond you to it pretty strongly! She is growing into a pretty lavender duck and, paired with the right, lightly-marked drake, she will give us lots of pretty Ancona ducklings.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Puppy Gets a Prolapse: the Causes and Treatment of Prolapse in Ducks (WARNING: Gross Photo Below)

Yesterday was a typically busy day at Gust Front Farm. The Man of the House was off to work early and I was left behind to tend the garden and mind the children and animals. I was filling a water tub in the duck yard and thinking about the day's lessons - we homeschool our four children - when I saw something red out of the corner of my eye.

Puppy, the small duck with a huge personality, had something terribly wrong with her. Our chickens and ducks have always been extremely healthy, so I don't have a lot of experience with avian medicine, but what had happened was pretty obvious even to me.

Puppy had a prolapse, also known as an eversion of the oviduct. Part of the oviduct, the tube that carries an egg through a duck's reproductive system, had been pushed out of Puppy's vent. A photo of it is below. Do not scroll down if you are squeamish.

Puppy's Prolapse
A very agile assistant (my seven year old) caught Puppy and held her while I confirmed my diagnosis. I knew that Puppy would need to be separated from the rest of the flock while she got better, so we prepared a kennel to serve as a duck hospital. I also recalled that Preparation H sometimes helps reduce swollen tissues on chickens with prolapse, so I donned a pair of latex gloves and smeared the everted area with hemorrhoid cream. Gee, that's something I never thought I'd do! We put Puppy in the kennel and I ran inside to consult my well-used copy of Storey's Guide to Raising Ducks.

What I read was rather dismal:

"Possible causes include obesity, premature egg production, over-sized eggs, excessive mating, and prolonged egg production..... An ailing duck can be saved only if she is discovered relatively soon after the oviduct is dislodged and if prompt action is taken." 


The book suggested cleaning the oviduct with warm water and keeping the tissue moist with mineral oil, however, " if the oviduct is pushed back into place, it will come back out unless a few ... sutures are placed in the vent...." (Holderread, 291)

Puppy needed to see a vet ASAP. A few hours later, Puppy was back at home with her bottom sewn back up, (almost) good as new. The vet said that the prolapse went in easily and they held it in place with a few dissolvable sutures. It was a quick and relatively cheap procedure. (It cost a grand total of $17.)

Puppy in mid-quack, post-procedure

Although her prolapse was sewn back in, Puppy will have to remain in her kennel for a few more days. At the moment, we have no way of keeping her away from the drakes, and they could cause her oviduct to prolapse again if (when) they tried to mate with her. We are actually in the middle of constructing some new duck pens, so thankfully Puppy's quarantine will be of short duration. Storey's Guide also recommends trying to keep ducks that are recovering from prolapse from laying eggs for at least 3 months. I'm not exactly sure how to do that, but I will switch her from layer feed to the same mix I feed my ducklings (unmedicated chick feed, brewer's yeast, rolled oats, and grit).

Puppy laid this egg the day after her surgery

We are pretty sure that Puppy had a prolapse due to over-mating. We have three drakes running with 6 ducks, but the ideal ratio of drakes to ducks is 1:3. Our new breeding pen arrangement should help prevent this problem.

We're keeping our fingers crossed that Puppy makes a full recovery. She's complaining about her hospitalization quite loudly, which I think is a positive sign!
Update: Puppy made a full recovery! She remains a beloved member of our flock, though we do not breed with her any more.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Experimenting with a Broody Hen. Warning: Contains Graphic "Eggtopsy" Photos

We have two Buff Orpington hens. The one my girls call Goldilocks has been broody since right after Thanksgiving. A broody hen is one that wants to become a mama. They sit on eggs with rabid determination and oftentimes will aggressively repel any hand that seeks to remove the eggs they are sitting on.

Broody Goldilocks
Goldilocks is a pretty laid-back broody, but she is extremely dedicated. To the best of my knowledge, she gets off the nest but one or two times a day to sneak a quick drink and snack. I've employed every trick in the book to break her of her broodiness and coax her back into egg production, but it has continued for over two months now. Broodies stop laying and they are of little use to a person who doesn't need eggs incubated.

While this drama was unfolding in the chicken coop, all of my Ancona ducks came into lay. When I started to see some fertile eggs in the mix (here's how you can tell if a duck or chicken egg has been fertilized), it finally dawned on me that I could use Goldilocks to incubate some duck eggs. We weren't planning to hatch a bunch of ducklings until after our Cream Legbar chicks leave the brooder, but surely a handful of ducklings wouldn't hurt anything, right?

I put five freshly laid Ancona duck eggs under Goldilocks on February 20th. Their potential due date would be in 28 days - March 20th.

Brr! Snow didn't stop this mama

The next day we had a huge snow storm and snow sifted in through the cracks around the nest box door. It didn't stop Goldilocks, but I did brush the snow off her tail.

I paid a close attention to Goldilocks over the next week. She seemed to do a good job, though sometimes she would get back into the wrong nest after one of her short food/water/pooping excursions. That is why it is best to separate a broody hen into their own coop, but we were just winging it. I also wondered if she was turning the eggs appropriately since they really didn't seem to change positions in the nest.

I candled the eggs after seven days had past. I was pretty sure that two of the eggs were infertile as they showed no signs of development, but I decided to give them a couple of extra days just in case my candling skills weren't up to par.

Eleven days after I put the eggs under Goldilocks, I walked into the coop to find that four of the eggs were pushed out of the nest box and lay cold on the coop floor. Sometimes a broody hen will discard eggs that she knows are dead, so I took them indoors and candled them.

Two of the eggs were the infertile ones. The other two had some development.

I had to open those eggs and see what I could learn. I steeled myself for something really yucky and smelly, but I shouldn't have worried. I found it really interesting to see how much had changed inside those eggs in just 11 short days.


I have opened other eggs in the past that failed during incubation. All of them had blood rings like in the photo below.

A blood ring indicates an early death of the embryo
Image source:

A blood ring means that the embryo died early on in the development process.  I knew that there would be when I opened these two eggs because I saw a lot more than just a ring when I candled them.

This is what was inside egg #1. Click on the photo if you would like to see it up close.

Duck embryo after 11 days of development. You can see the eyes, beginnings of wings and legs, and
where the veins attach to the abdomen.

The embryo is encased in a membrane and had an extensive blood supply network

The second egg had obviously died a bit earlier than the first one. It had less veining and appeared to be decomposing a bit.

Egg #2 quit a bit earlier than Egg #1

This was absolutely fascinating to me. I wish the ducklings had developed properly and hatched, but at least I learned a little bit about their development. Goldilocks is still sitting on one egg, so we'll see if she becomes a mother yet!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Morning Glory the Attack Duck

It is the time of year when drakes can start to misbehave. The lengthening daylight tells the drake it is time to sow his wild oats and fight off any competitors.

I knew this so I've been keeping a careful eye on our flock of ducks. All had been peaceful and quiet. At least 5 of my 6 ducks have come into lay and the three drakes were busy trying to make all those eggs fertile.    Happiness reigned in duck-dom. 

That all changed yesterday. 

This is Morning Glory. 

This is Hyacinth

This is Morning Glory attacking Hyacinth

Morning Glory decided to ruthlessly bully Hyacinth and keep him separated from the rest of the flock. I have been checking on the ducks frequently to make sure this behavior doesn't get out of hand. So far there has been no blood shed, but Morning Glory is so focused on Hyacinth that he has neglected his conjugal duties. 
Interestingly, Morning Glory doesn't seem to care about Freckles, our third drake. 

Normally Hyacinth is one of the flock's leaders and often leads them all to bed in their duck house at nightfall. Last night Morning Glory chased out poor Hy and wouldn't let him back in. That behavior backfired on Morning Glory, though, because I scooped him up and put him in "time out"(our quarantine/hospital pen)  for the night. 

Needless to say, we are building breeding pens so we can get our drakes separated ASAP.  That way everyone will stay safe and we can further our breeding goals. We've bought the materials so now it is just a matter of putting it all together.